Bioinformatics and medieval philosophy: two new ERC projects at Ca’ Foscari

Nicola Prezza and Caterina Tarlazzi

Algorithms for computational genomics and the ‘polyphonic’ philosophy of the 12th century AD: these are the research areas that have led two researchers at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice to obtain the ERC Starting Grant — arguably the most prestigious European grant for researchers at the start of their career.

Nicola Prezza is an assistant professor of Computer Science looking to improve the study of DNA mutations, while Caterina Tarlazzi is an assistant professor of Philosophy who has worked extensively abroad. The ERC Starting Grants that these researchers have obtained amount to approximately 1.5 million euro each, which will fund the creation and coordination of their research groups during the next five years

Overall, Ca’ Foscari researchers have obtained 17 ERC Starting Grants since the programme was established in 2007. Today the names of 367 awardees were published, as a result of a selection process which included 4066 projects presented by researchers from the EU and beyond. The awardees of this session include 58 Italian researchers who will be hosted by 28 Italian institutions, among which Ca’ Foscari.

Caterina Tarlazzi and the polyphonic philosophy of the 12th century 

Dr Tarlazzi studied and conducted research in several European institutions before joining Ca’ Foscari in 2020 with the “Rita Levi Montalcini” programme, which aims to attract Italian researchers working abroad. Dr Tarlazzi is an expert in Early Medieval Latin philosophy (6th - 12th centuries). 

Dr Tarlazzi’s project, Polyphonic Philosophy. Logic in the Long Twelfth Century (c.1070-1220) for a New Horizon in the History of Philosophy, focuses on a set of logical commentaries written in Latin between 1070 and 1220 — a period which is particularly fascinating because its scholarly work and discussions would eventually lead to the establishment of the first universities. 

Dr Tarlazzi’s research team will analyse 35 manuscripts currently housed in a variety of libraries around Europe, as well as a unique corpus of preliminary transcriptions of texts. The aim of the project is to understand the particular philosophical approach that the manuscripts attest to, i.e., a ‘polyphonic’ philosophy which is not the product of an individual, but the outcome of an interaction between multiple and diverse ‘voices’ (the authoritative text, the various commentators, the discussions among contemporary rival commentators).

Nicola Prezza and computational genomics

Dr Prezza obtained his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Udine. He then conducted research in Copenhagen, Pisa and Rome. In 2018, Dr Prezza was awarded “Best Italian young researcher in Theoretical Computer Science 2018”, by the Italian Chapter of the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science (EATCS), and in September 2020 he joined Ca’ Foscari as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science. 

With the REGINDEX (Compressed Indexes for Regular Languages with Applications to Computational Pan-genomics) project, Dr Prezza and his team will develop new, efficient algorithms to find information in massive structured datasets. These techniques have important applications in computational genomics: in fact, all known human DNA mutations can be organised into a large mathematical structure, the ‘pan-genome graph’. Efficient methods for finding mutations inside this graph are essential in activities such as the diagnosis of rare genetic disorders.

Author: Enrico Costa / Translator: Joangela Ceccon